GENEVA — U.N. officials confirmed an outbreak of polio among children in Syria on Tuesday, lending urgency to plans for vaccination campaigns there and in nearby countries to try to halt the spread of the disease.
Tests confirmed polio in 10 out of 22 children in Deir el-Zour province in northeastern Syria who became ill this month, said Oliver Rosenbauer, a spokesman for the World Health Organization. Results of tests on the 12 other children are expected soon.
"With population movements, it can travel to other areas," Rosenbauer said, "so the risk is high of spread across the region."
U.N. officials said last week that they were beginning a campaign to immunize 2.4 million children in Syria against polio and other diseases. With thousands of refugees fleeing daily from Syria's civil war to neighboring countries, the officials are also intensifying immunization efforts in six countries: Lebanon, Jordan, Iraq and Turkey, which have taken in more than 2 million Syrian refugees, as well as Egypt and Israel.
Most of the affected children in Syria are younger than 2, Rosenbauer said, underscoring the impact of 31 months of conflict on Syria's health infrastructure. The United Nations says half a million Syrian children have not been inoculated against polio in a country where, before the conflict, 95 percent of the country's population was immunized.
Despite the difficulty of delivering vaccines in a country convulsed by war, UNICEF said it had vaccinated about 1 million Syrian children this year, including 800,000 who were vaccinated against polio.
After confirming the presence of the disease, attention is turning to identifying the source, Rosenbauer said. Public health officials have speculated that a possible source may have been jihadi fighters traveling to Syria from Pakistan, which, with Afghanistan and Nigeria, are the only countries where the disease is still endemic.